from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Domestic Drones Are Here...To Stay

June 21, 2012

A pair of Customs and Border Protection UAS aircraft located at the southern border are standing by for air operations (Gerald L. Nino/Courtesy Customs and Border Protection).
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Today, I have a piece in Foreign Policy that assesses the use of surveillance drones by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP). While many are understandably anxious about the seemingly inevitable expansion of drones across the United States, I argue that many fears are either overblown or based on misperceptions.

  • The CBP already maintains the “largest law enforcement air force in the world,” with more than 270 manned aircraft of 20 different types—including modern Blackhawk helicopters. (The terrifying photograph below comes from the CBP website.) In addition to its manned aircraft, CBP has deployed nine (unarmed) Predator B drones: two on the border with Canada and seven along the border with Mexico. In total, drones make up roughly 3 percent of CBP aircraft tasked with patrolling U.S. borders and shores. Before getting carried away with domestic drone schemes, concerned citizens should probably focus first on the other 97 percent.

    A CBP Blackhawk helicopter intimidates two vehicles on a remote air strip in the southwest border region of the United States (James Tourtellotte/Courtesy Customs and Border Patrol).
    A CBP Blackhawk helicopter intimidates two vehicles on a remote air strip in the southwest border region of the United States (James Tourtellotte/Courtesy Customs and Border Patrol).

  • Largely as a result of the onslaught of media attention over CIA and military drone strikes abroad, some are concerned that federal authorities could use drones for airstrikes at home as well. Although variants of the Predator can be equipped to missiles, CBP drones will not bomb U.S. citizens. At the same time, it is a common misperception that all drones drop bombs. In reality, less than 4 percent of the Pentagon’s 6,316 drones are capable of conducting strike missions. And in a voice vote regarding DHS funding on June 7, the House of Representatives committee agreed: “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used for the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles.”

  • The anxieties over drones—whether abroad or at home—do not stem from the platform itself, but the mission. In January 2010, for instance, a U.S. Air Force Global Hawk surveillance drone—originally bound for Afghanistan—was diverted in order to provide images to humanitarian relief groups less than forty-eight hours after the Haiti earthquake struck. At the same time, other U.S. drones are used by the executive branch to kill suspected militants and other “military age males” in close proximity, with little transparency and oversight.

  • Congress and the courts are responsible for assuring that drones flown above the United States do not threaten U.S. citizens’ right to privacy and civil liberties. As Louis Brandeis and Sammuel Warren noted in their increasingly relevant 1890 essay, “The Right to Privacy:” “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.’” Americans should expect and demand the “right to be left alone,” particularly from instantaneous photographs transmitted via drone.

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